Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Time to get off the fence on freedom of movement

We have to act on principles rather than playing politics as we shape our Brexit message, writes Rachel Finnegan

It is clear to everyone that there were many reasons the general public voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016. The economy, sovereignty, immigration, education, trade, austerity, Nigel Farage. But what implications do some of those reasons have for human rights in the United Kingdom? Arguably, a portion of the vote to leave was also a result of xenophobia, racism and rightwing populism. The same forces that threaten the very principle of universal human rights.

Two weeks into the referendum campaign Ipsos MORI published research which found that immigration had taken over the economy as the most important factor influencing people’s decision. Yet the voting pattern revealed after polling day showed that the areas with the highest levels of immigration were generally the areas that voted to remain. For example, Lambeth in London, which recorded the highest remain vote of 78 per cent, became home to 4,598 migrants in 2015. While Castle Point in Essex saw only 81 new international migrants in 2015, but 72 per cent of people there voted leave. So if it was not actually the direct result of immigration itself which led to people wanting to leave the EU, then what was it?

It could be argued that the dominance of immigration as an issue in the referendum debate was much more a question of political tone than it was of political fact. It is breaking no new ground to say that the topic of immigration formed part of a narrative that stuck. A lot of the major causes of the dissatisfaction felt by those who wanted to ‘give Westminster a kicking’ could be linked back to immigration by the leave campaigns (both the official Vote Leave campaign, and – particularly – the more controversial Leave.EU campaign), however tenuously. Struggling to find work? Immigrants taking jobs. Not paid enough? Immigrants undercutting wages. Long queues in A&E? Healthcare tourism. Overcrowded classrooms? Immigrants taking up places at schools. Even the idea of a ‘loss of sovereignty’ has a white, male, ‘back to the good old days’ feel to it.

The danger with this style of politics is that it is essentially scapegoating. It undermines legitimate debate because simplicity is the key to dominating media narrative, and complex issues are harder to sell. Can we remember anything that Stronger In really campaigned on? I cannot, because the arguments for staying in the EU – including protection for human rights, like equal pay for work of equal value, anti-discrimination provisions (including on gender and age), safety and fairness issues like rights for agency workers, privacy and healthcare – are complex. In other words, this style of politics does not operate on principles. Vote-winning is the only principle, and that is a major worry to anyone concerned about human rights.

The argument around free movement faces a similar problem: in the current political climate, the argument for it is an almost impossible one to make – but the one against it is extremely simple, and feeds into the existing narrative. The result is that politicians on the left have a difficult choice to make: do they agree to end freedom of movement and risk legitimising the forces that led to Brexit and are threatening the principle of universal human rights? Do they strike a balance and introduce restrictions in an attempt to prevent those forces from getting stronger and gaining momentum? Or do they defend freedom of movement at the risk of losing more support to the far right? Too often, when faced with this kind of choice, the tendency is to duck the issue with a non-committal stance – and freedom of movement is no different. As a narrative it is currently red-hot, and so coming down hard on either side represents a risk, politically. But avoiding tackling such issues head-on serves noone: it leaves the opposition divided and weak, and it allows dangerous over-simplification to take hold.

If we want to stand up for human rights, we should at least have a proper debate, and we have a duty to ask the difficult questions. We have to act on principles rather than playing politics, and make an attempt to sell the harder story. That seems to be the only way to combat a style of politics that will otherwise always hit those at the bottom of the pile hardest, sacrificing human rights along the way. Surely it is better to make the harder case in an attempt to raise the tone of the debate.

Tomorrow, the Labour Campaign for Human Rights will be hosting a Q&A with Keir Starmer, Polly Toynbee, Schona Jolly QC and Narmada Thiranagama. The discussion will give Labour members and supporters a chance to interrogate Labour’s plans for a human rights friendly Brexit deal. Let us get the debate started.


Rachel Finnegan is campaigns assistant for Labour Campaign for Human Rights. She tweets at @RachFinnegan


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Rachel Finnegan

is campaigns assistant for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights


  • As a white male, who appears to be getting the blame in Ms. Finnegan’s “article” , most research indicated that more women voted for Brexit than men. Strangely enough, the figures looked roughly similar to Mrs Thatcher’s female/male vote split during elections. Shouldn’t the writer be writing about her flag bearer in France anyway?

  • Rachel is wrong to say that it is currently impossible to make the case for freedom of movement of workers.

    Of the four basic EU freedoms of movement – for capital, services, goods and workers – only one freedom is unregulated.

    Standards are enforced in financial transactions, in terms of service, in quality of goods. But not in terms and conditions of work.

    Poor pay and conditions in a range of Member States not only holds back their economies. It also creates a push factor for emigration, while pulling against immigration. Who wants to stay in Romania for example to work there? Who wants to go there from the UK or Sweden to work?

    A social democratic vision for Europe surely has to be to improve pay and conditions for all to the level of the best.

    This would then turn the freedom of movement of workers from a license to exploit backwardness into a benefit that all of us want.

    It would also spur the economic growth that the ECB’s monetary approach has signally failed to achieve.

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